Thousands of years of visual culture made free through Wellcome Images

Over 100,000 images, including manuscripts, paintings, etchings, early photography and advertisements, are being made freely available through Wellcome Images. Drawn from the historical holdings of the world-renowned Wellcome Library, the images are being released under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence.

The images can be downloaded directly from the Wellcome Images website for users to freely copy, distribute, edit, manipulate and build upon as they wish, and are available for personal or commercial use.

The unique and diverse holdings of the Wellcome Library, one of the world's leading libraries on medical history and the human condition, offer a rich body of historical images, ranging from ancient medical manuscripts to etchings by artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Francisco Goya. The earliest item is a 2000-year-old Egyptian prescription on papyrus, and treasures include exquisite medieval illuminated manuscripts and anatomical drawings, from delicate 16th-century fugitive sheets, whose hinged paper flaps reveal hidden viscera, to Paolo Mascagni's vibrantly coloured etching of an 'exploded' torso.

From the beauty of a Persian horoscope for the 15th-century prince Iskandar to sharply sketched satires by Thomas Rowlandson, James Gillray and Robert Cruikshank, the collection is by turns both sacred and profane. Photography includes Eadweard Muybridge's studies of motion, John Thomson's remarkable 19th-century portraits from his travels in China, and a newly added series of photographs of hysteric and epileptic patients at the famous Salpêtrière Hospital.

Simon Chaplin, Head of the Wellcome Library, says "Together the collection amounts to a dizzying visual record of centuries of human culture and our attempts to understand our bodies, minds and health through art and observation. As a strong supporter of open access, we want to make sure these images can be used and enjoyed by anyone without restriction."

Catherine Draycott, Head of Wellcome Images, says: "Wellcome Images is an invaluable visual resource for anyone interested in themes around medicine and the wider history of health, and we are delighted to make our growing archive of historical images freely available to all and provide the mechanism for direct access to them. We hope that users, both personal and commercial, take full advantage of the material available."

Colin Jones, Fellow of the British Academy and Professor of History at Queen Mary University of London, says: "This announcement makes 2014 a happy new year indeed for anyone interested in what the past looked like. Focused on the history of health and healing, the Wellcome Images archive is in fact quite extraordinarily wide-ranging. It touches and illuminates almost every facet of human existence."